With runoff starting throughout the West, paddlers are heading out in droves to area waterways—despite Mother Nature not necessarily providing a wealth of water for the season. Following is a PL roundup of snowpack around the West…
The La Niña winter proved to be drier than hoped for across much of Idaho. Except for the Clearwater Basin, the lack of precipitation during March resulted in near to below normal snowpack across the state. Basin-wide snowpack ranges from 63% to 110%, with total precipitation ranging from 61% to 98%— a slightly drier season than 2020. The good news: reservoir storage is on pace with the historical 30-year average, indicating normal baseflow. Drought conditions in central and southern Idaho are expected to persist during spring.
The three-month outlook from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC) predicts warmer and drier conditions than normal across most of Idaho and in the Snake River headwaters. Idaho’s snowpack for major river basins like the Salmon and Snake is currently hovering around 90%, but it might linger longer and provide optimal summer rafting conditions.
Despite Jackson Hole having a super solid ski season, appeasing powerhounds, Wyoming’s snowpack/snow water equivalents (SWEs) is just 89% of median, with a basin high of 129% (Powder) and a basin low of 57% (Upper Bear).
The Snake system, one of the state’s most popular for rafting, is clocking in at 715, the Madison at 75% and the Yellowstone at 86%. The farther south you go, the numbers taper off. http://www.wrds.uwyo.edu/wrds/nrcs/snowrept/snowrept.html
Like most California paddlers, I’m a bit worried about how the low snowfall will impact the paddling season (we’ve already seen a short-season peak on some of the upper tributaries feeding our reservoirs). Spring paddlers willing to risk cold hands and long hikes were able to take advantage of the early run-off on upper runs. While the drought isn’t expected to heavily impact rafting on dam-controlled rivers like the American and Tuolumne River, whitewater stretches without upstream reservoirs, like the Merced and the North Fork of the American, will have abbreviated seasons.
What’s the rest of the season going to be like? In California, most of our water is locked up by dams. The downside—well, dams. The upside- predictable flows. But given the drought year we’re in, it’s hard to predict what to expect regarding our annual recreational scheduled water releases. So, I reached out to Theresa Lorejo-Simsiman, California Stewardship Director at American Whitewater and was encouraged by what she shared.
“Recreational releases provided by hydropower will continue as scheduled. These recreational flows are mandated for the entirety of a hydropower license order, even in drought years,” she says. “Utilities can ask for a variance, but it must be either an emergency or conditions would need to be extreme and detrimental to endangered species for a variance to be granted. Put simply, it’s a fine balance of generation, recreational and ecological needs.”
According to the California Department of Water Resources, the state is at 59% of average snow-water-equivalent for this time of year.
Here’s a breakdown of watershed SWE averages
|Watershed Region||SWE Percent to Average||Popular Rivers|
|Sacramento||65%||Feather, Yuba, American|
|San Joaquin||49%||Mokelumne, Tuolumne, Merced|
|Tulare||25%||Kings, Kaweah, Kern|
|North Lahontan||48%||Truckee, Carson|
—Joe Booth (author of The Class V Mind)
The Northwest fared better than Cali and Colorado this year, with snowpack levels near or above average. In Oregon, the snowpack is above average for northern river basins like the John Day and Deschutes, but even for river basins that are slightly below average, like the Rogue, demand for rafting trips is high and outfitters report limited availability for this popular multi-day trip going into the peak summer season. And the White drainages around Hood River have been firing on all cylinders.
Up in Washington, the Upper Puget Sound snowpack level clocked in at 173% of average, indicating a great year for such runs as the Wenatchee, while the South Puget Sound region registered 145% and the North a robust 123%. Elsewhere, the Central Columbia region read 122%, the Lower Columbia 137%, and the Upper Yakima drainage system 134%.
“It should be a pretty good year, and everything’s already running pretty good,” says PL’s Nick Hinds, who lives outside Seattle. “I’ll take above average flows anytime, especially this year with how the rest of the West is faring.”
“Rocky Mountain Dry, Coloradooo” … that’s the song John Denver, rest his soul, might’ve sung about this year, as the Rockies are high and dry in the Centennial State. Low snowfall throughout most of Colorado is spelling a relatively low-water year for Rocky Mountain river runners, with statewide snowpack at just 76%.
As of May 1, the coveted Arkansas drainage measured just 80% of average, with the Colorado system hovering at 75% and the Yampa basin at 73%. Down south is even drier, with the Animas region at 61%, affecting Durango-area boaters, the Gunnison at 66% (likely not much of an Oh-Be-Joyful season), and the Upper Rio Grande at 72%. The lone bright spot is the South Platte, which is right at average.
The below-average reading across the Upper Colorado Basin means lower, but reliable water levels all season for popular river trips like Utah’s Green River through Gates of Lodore and Desolation Canyon, which can count on water releases from upstream reservoirs, as well as the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon. And the Arkansas will at least have low-water releases until mid-August.
But for those hoping to run rivers like the Dolores, it looks like you’ll have to wait another season…